No News Is Agnews

The Canfield Decision Playboy Press; $8.95; 344 pp. by Spiro Agnew

He put his hands on her shoulders. "It has to be a dream, Sirana. International intrigues set in the exotic Far East, a romantic evening with a beautiful girl sent to warn of danger--"

"More like a popular novel," she said dreamily, her head resting against his cheek. "The hero is on an important mission for his country. He is warned by the girl. They are attracted to one another, but duty calls him home, and they never see each other again."

"Not quite. In a novel the hero would continue on into danger and conquer it, rather than run away."

She looked up at him and put her fingers across his lips. "Only a stupid hero would do that. I wouldn't want to be involved with a stupid hero," she said, smiling.

His arms went around her slim waist, and he felt the soft pressure of her breasts when she leaned against him. "Only a stupid hero would go away and never see the girl again," he said slowly. They lost themselves in one another's eyes for a long moment, then she lifted her lips in an unmistakable invitation. He kissed her gently, and her arms reached around his neck. She pressed the full length of her body against him...


THIS BIT of self-conscious irony is found almost two thirds of the way through Spiro Agnew's first venture into written fiction (we're not counting spoken or historical fiction). Sirana is Sirana Amiri, the "lush" "beautiful" "lovely" Iranian secret agent sent to fool the "hero." The "hero" is Zack Miller, the intellectual from NYU and personal adviser to Vice President Newton Canfield.

The irony of this passage is Spiro Agnew's implied claim that he's writing a novel that is more than just popular fiction. Through his most intelligent, honest, noble characters he is trying to say that the situation he has created rises above the mundane, ordinary plot concoctions of pop novels. If the language doesn't clue you in, that fact that Zack and Amiri fall deeply and irrevocably in love in no time flat, and that this passage is an example of their wittiest repartee should tell you that Agnew's implied claim isn't quite true.

The passage not only describes Agnew's novel, but Ehrlichman's The Company as well: intrigue, lavish and exotic settings, vapid romances, powerful men doing important things, and a sense of vacancy surrounding it all. The passage doesn't describe some of the other aspects of these two pop gov thrillers: an overriding concern with power, fame, the good life, and the ambition that drives people to seek such things. Ehrlichman actually describes what these two novels are about in a short preface. He writes that while the characters are fictitious, "the forces--the stresses, pressures, fears and passions--that motivate the characters are real."

The plots in The Canfield Decision and The Company are stellar examples of the key to popular success. They're simple, sensational, they contain little moral complexity and the narrative is one easy, continuous flow.

Agnew sets his novel in 1983. The Democrats are in office, second-term President Walter Hurly is vying with Vice President Porter Canfield over important foreign policy matters. Canfield is seeking his party's nomination and to gain the spotlight he stumps around the country on the off-year-election circuit saying the U.S. should give Israel nuclear weapons. This posture threatens to ruin the latest round of SALT talks; nevertheless, Canfield won't follow lame-duck Hurly's orders to lay off the Israel stuff. The press--which under the appellation of 'Operation Torchlight' is secretly conspiring to boost popular support for Israel--is backing Canfield all the way. Meanwhile, a network of spies and terrorists are surreptitiously acting to destroy detente by setting the entire mass communications industry on an all-out campaign supporting nuclear arms shipments to Israel.

HURLY SUBMITS to the consequent pressure of public opinion, sends the weapons, and a Cuban missile crisis in reverse occurs in the Mediterranean. Canfield mounts almost unanimous congressional and cabinet support for a face-off with the Ruskies, and then suddenly evidence comes to light involving the V.P. in a scandal-to-end-all-scandals. This evidence centers around the title's 'Canfield Decision,' the V.P.'s decision to be co-opted by murderers and to participate indirectly in other criminal actions. I won't give that part away because, in part, the suspense works, and also because it's so ridiculously entangled. The book is a sort of Peyton Place of politics, only the world's existence is at stake, not Allison's virginity.

If Agnew's story-line is far-fetched, Ehrlichman's is only slightly more plausible. Because Ehrlichman writes about clearly recognizable figures in the not-so-distant-past, you could even say that his plot is more ludicrous. He starts with a quick summary of the 1960s: President William Curry (Harvard grad) dies in a plane crash and is succeeded by President Esker Anderson (who "exudes...a crude inelegance" and decides not to run for reelection). The main story begins with the presidential campaign between Republican Richard Monckton and former Vice-President Edward Gilley.

Watching all of this closely is William Martin, director of the CIA (The Company), who stands to lose his job and his integrity if it is ever revealed that he acted, under orders from President Curry, to ruin a U.S.-supported invasion of a South American country in which several hundred "patriots" died. Martin had earlier predicted that millionaire Governor Thomas Forville would win the Republican nomination and eventually the election; so he courted the governor's international advisor--Austrian-born, Harvard professor Carl Tessler. Martin leaked secret information to Tessler, who used it for his "brilliant" books. Fortunately for Martin, Tessler is wooed over to candidate Monckton's staff, so Martin's job is safeguarded. Unfortunately for Martin, after the election, his new boss, President Monckton, wants to see all of the CIA's top-secret files. Martin has to stall Monckton so he won't see the secret report on the South American invasion. The pressure mounts. Only by collecting conclusive evidence that the president approved illegal break-ins and wiretappings can Martin blackmail Monckton...and so on.

NEITHER OF these books is very interesting and you might well question why you should bother to read them at all. There are a few good reasons that have little to do with the authors' intentions of supposedly entertaining readers and enthralling them with behind-the-scenes accounts from men who were there.

First, you can see what Agnew and Ehrlichman's primary concerns were during most of their public lives. Both novels contain lengthy descriptions of the Oval Office (in all of its awesome splendor), Airforce Two (Agnew), Airforce One (Agnew and Ehrlichman), and Camp David (Ehrlichman). The material spoils of power are given prominent places in both books: the authors dwell on chauffeur-driven limos, deferring butlers and maids, posh furnishings, fancy restaurants, sumptuous Government repasts (Agnew likes to show that he's a connoisseur by having Canfield comment on the quality of food and wine), and above all, alcohol. Booze, according to these novels, almost swirls down the gutters of Washington's streets, greasing the wheels of efficient government.